By John Ladd, guest blogger
At the end of this year, Marc Williams will be stepping down after 7-1/2 years on the Alexandria School Board. As a fellow parent and a good friend who appreciates Marc’s desire to make Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) the best school division it can be, I asked him to share with me his thoughts on lessons learned, on how the board functions, and what voters should look for in School Board members.
Is the job…and it is a job…what you expected?
Yes and no. I had been following the Board for some time before I was elected, so I understood how the Board worked in terms of meetings and processes, such as adopting a budget. What was most important to me was to always have a principled basis for my decisions, and that principled basis is what is best for students in raising their achievement. I did not fully appreciate how difficult it is to ensure that all ACPS employees and resources are aligned to truly make a difference for each and every one of our students.
Can you explain how the board functions?
This is something that is not very well understood by the community. The Virginia Constitution establishes School Boards that are charged with supervising the schools, and the Code of Virginia requires School Boards to ensure that school laws are followed and that the schools are operated with the “utmost efficiency.” The Constitution also requires that each unit of local government provide a portion of the costs of running the school division. Under the Virginia Code, the Board can only act as a group making decisions together. The Board hires the Superintendent, sets the policies for operating the school division, and adopts the budget to provide the resources to operate the division. It is the Superintendent’s job to carry out the policies established by the Board.
There is confusion, often by new Board members, about what are the Board’s responsibilities and what are the Superintendent’s responsibilities. Unfortunately, I have seen a number of instances where individual Board members have tried to “run the school division,” either by targeting the jobs of individual employees, or circumventing the Superintendent to pressure administrators or meet with employee groups. This micromanaging harms the effectiveness of the schools.
Another area of confusion I see is around the role of the City Council with respect to the schools. The School Board submits to the City Council an estimate of the financial resources it needs to operate the schools in enough detail for the City Council (and the public) to decide on the amount to appropriate. The School Board is charged with directing how the funds, once appropriated, will be used. I have seen instances in which it appears that a City Council member does not fully understand his/her role and the School Board’s role.
Based on your long experience, is this how it should function?
There is a lot of wisdom in the division of roles and responsibilities as set up in the Virginia Constitution and the state statutes because it allows those closest to what is going on to make the decisions. Dysfunction sets in when these roles and responsibilities are not observed.
An elected School Board is also important because it assures that the public has an opportunity—every three years in our case—to have their say in how they think the Board has performed its duties and how well individual Board members have contributed to that performance. Also, it provides healthy independence from the City Council. If the City Council appointed the School Board members, it would risk diluting the division of roles and responsibilities.
Are there necessary structural or procedural reforms that could be instituted to improve the functioning of the school board?
Yes, and I would highlight two changes: staggered terms for School Board members and rotation of the Chair position. First, staggered terms would help create continuity in the composition of the Board while also allowing for change in response to the electorate. In 2012, seven of nine Board members were new to the Board. The inexperience was palpable, leading to missteps that undermined the credibility of the Board overall and resulted in a loss of confidence among many members of the public. Of greater significance was the disruption that this large turnover had on the School Division as a whole, especially the relationship between the Board and the Superintendent, which is crucial for raising student achievement. The Board continuity that would come with staggered terms may have prevented these missteps and led to a different plan that would have minimized both the cost of transitioning to a new superintendent and any interruption in the work of raising student achievement.
The second change I would recommend is rotation of the Chair position of the Board. The Chair—in contrast to the Mayor—is not elected separately, nor does the the Chair have any additional authority. The primary role of the Chair is to work with the Superintendent to set the agenda for the meetings and to serve as spokesperson for the Board. Over the last few school boards, there is a notion that only an individual who does not have another job should be Chair. However, if the Chair is spending too much time in that role, there is a danger that the Board will micromanage the school division. The role of the Board is oversight, not implementation. Other School Boards such as Arlington County have a policy of rotating the Chair position every year. This would reinforce the role of the Board as a body corporate to the public and help focus the Board on implementing its Strategic Plan.
Given that the budget for ACPS comprises one-third of the City’s budget ($199M), should the School Board be more insulated or less insulated from the City Council and Mayor?
As I explained above, the Virginia Constitution, Code, and case law all define the relationship between the School Board and the City Council. Voters should scrutinize the fiscal responsibility of the Board and the Superintendent. I have always tried to be respectful of Alexandria taxpayers and I believe the Board should be judged on how prudent it is with the funds provided by the City Council. Part of the School Board’s and the Superintendent’s responsibilities are periodic evaluations of programs and plans to ensure that they are effective and lead to an increase in student achievement.
With respect to change, which is better—immediate change or gradual change?
There is no room for error when it comes to making sure that each student is progressing. If that means we need to make changes, it is imperative that we do so. And it’s important that we have a structure within which change can be made to benefit students without being overly disruptive.
When I joined the School Board in 2008, Alexandria City Public Schools had no strategic plan and no curriculum. The strategic plan is the blueprint for the work of the Board, the Superintendent, administrators, teachers, paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, etc. During my tenure, the School Board has adopted two Strategic Plans—2010-2015 and 2015-2020. I am proud that both have focused on raising student achievement. The Mission Statement of the recently adopted Plan is “Every student succeeds: Educating lifelong learners and inspiring civic responsibility.” Meaningful strategic plans are crucial to making sure that all oars are pulling together for the benefit of all of our students.
The ACPS curriculum was developed under the previous Superintendent, and the current Superintendent is continuing to refine the application and implementation of it. This curriculum meets the Standards of Learning and also contains a rich set of tools that enable teachers to differentiate instruction based on the needs of both struggling students and those who would benefit from acceleration. The current Superintendent is strengthening academic and behavioral supports to ensure that students have full access to the curriculum in order to reach their highest potential.
Underpinning this structure of the Strategic Plan and the curriculum is a culture of continuous improvement and excellence. For example, if a specific student or group of students are not achieving, then this structure calls for immediate analysis of what needs to change—perhaps the type or quality of instruction, or new or different supports for the student. I am confident that this culture of continuous improvement and excellence will facilitate the kinds of changes that matter most: those that are best for our students.
There are people from all walks of life who serve on the school board. In your experience, are certain skill sets more effective for serving on the Board than others?
There is no particular experience or qualification that is preferable over another for a Board member to have. In fact, one benefit of having a nine-member School Board is that it can bring a rich set of experiences and qualifications to the Board. The most important quality for a School Board member is to always focus on what is best for students. The biggest danger for a School Board member is when he/she focuses on adults rather than the students and their education. I have seen instances where the effectiveness of the Board has been harmed by a majority of the Board focusing on the needs of adults rather than students. It has been in these instances when the credibility of the Board is diminished and its effectiveness is undermined. When this happens, it is vital for Board members to hold each other accountable and return to focusing on students.
The second important quality for an effective Board is for each Board member to understand and embrace the structure and imperative for continuous improvement and excellence, as discussed above.
What should people look for in a school board candidate?
First and most important, choose the candidate who wants to be a champion for students and who believes that every student can achieve at high levels. Listen carefully to what the candidate says. Does he/she talk about meeting the needs of every student or does he/she talk about what adults need? I recall the campaign leaflet of a school board candidate in a past election that never once mentioned students and meeting their needs. This should have been a red flag.
Second, look for the candidate that has demonstrated that they will do their homework and work hard. School Board service is difficult and takes a lot of time. It involves digesting proposals by the Superintendent, doing independent research, and listening to the community. You do not want to elect someone who will not or cannot do the work.
Third, select someone who has sound judgment. In any given election, it is impossible to know how an individual candidate will vote on every issue. So, it is important to choose someone who, ideally, has impeccable judgment. For example, beware of candidates who say they will get rid of an employee, such as a Superintendent, or a program. Once elected, they may go after your favorite administrator, teacher, or specific program.
Fourth, determine whether the candidate is nonpartisan. Alexandria has a tradition of keeping partisan politics largely out of School Board races, which are designed to be nonpartisan. This stands in contrast to neighboring jurisdictions such as Arlington where political parties endorse and elect candidates. This tradition of nonpartisanship provides a greater possibility for School Board members to act independently.
Fifth, look for a candidate who will strive to be prudent with public monies provided for the schools. While taxing authority is limited to the City Council, the School Board is responsible to operate the schools in as efficient manner as possible.
Leadership matters. Immediately prior and during your tenure, there have been three different superintendents. What have you learned from that situation?
One of the primary responsibilities of the School Board is to select and supervise the Superintendent. Different leaders are needed for different times and sometimes change is needed—sometimes a visionary leader is needed to help the Board make changes and sometimes a leader who can focus on implementation is needed. In all cases, however, the Superintendent must be an instructional leader. What I have learned is that how a transition is managed matters a lot because of its potential for interrupting the focus on student achievement.
The most successful School Divisions and organizations in general are those that have stable leadership, smooth transitions, and clarity of mission. I have already discussed the structure that has been put in place and is being perfected to achieve a culture of continuous improvement and excellence. A School Board should ensure that it selects the most effective Superintendent to facilitate this culture and then supports him or her in that role. Board members get into trouble when they allow personality clashes—as has occurred in the past—to cloud their judgment with respect to working with the Superintendent.
What was the highest priority reform that you were able to accomplish? What is the most important reform that still needs to be accomplished?
No accomplishment can be achieved alone and I am grateful for the teamwork of students, parents, ACPS administrators, teachers and staff, the Superintendent, and Board members to bring about the many changes during my time on the Board that have helped our students reach their potential. There are two accomplishments that I regard as important and long lasting. My proudest achievement has been to provide the opportunity for middle school students to challenge themselves in math. Before I joined the School Board, the Division’s policy was that only students identified as Talented and Gifted were permitted to take on a greater challenge in math. After I joined the Board, another Board member and I pushed for a change in ACPS’s middle school math policy that would permit and encourage students to take more challenging math classes. The change was adopted by a majority of the Board.
Before this change, only 17% of students took Algebra in the 8th grade, almost all of them from middle-class families. In contrast, last year (2014-2015 school year), 96% of students took Algebra in the 8th grade. Taking Algebra in the 8th grade is a gateway to taking higher level math and science courses that better prepare students for college. This policy change clearly has served all students and helped put them on a stronger path to college.
Also, as Chair of the School Board’s Policy Committee, I pushed for and helped draft the School Board’s Equity and Excellence Policy, adopted by the previous Board and affirmed by the current Board. This policy enshrines ACPS’s belief that “each student will reach high levels of achievement” and commits that ACPS policies, regulations, and practices will follow a set of enumerated principles to assure equity for each student. For example, one principle is “[p]roviding a challenging educational program to every student with an emphasis on acceleration of learning opportunities is the responsibility of each administrator, teacher, and staff member.” ACPS has outstanding and committed administrators, teachers, paraprofessionals, and other staff. This policy has already helped to institutionalize a culture of equity and excellence. This work, however, is never complete and needs continued community commitment to help ACPS students reach their highest potential.
John Ladd is a 20-year resident of Alexandria and he and his wife Beth have three sons who attended Charles Barrett Elementary School.